Roger Bourke: Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola is the wrong solution for our future

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protestors hold up "No Gondola" signs at a protest at the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride on Saturday, September 25, 2021.

Many of us have a coffee table book with lots photos of the gorgeous scenery that abound in our state. Those books typically have images of Delicate Arch, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and more. And many have a photo taken in Alta, looking down Little Cottonwood Canyon across the valley to the Oquirrhs.

There are a few signs of humans, some low rise buildings and modest ski lifts for moving people to higher elevations, but most of the scene is dominated by the beauty of nature. Whether it is snow-covered, abounding in flowers or adorned with the autumn leaves, the pictures are breath taking.

UDOT’s proposal for a gondola up this canyon would change all that. That gondola would have a large terminal building in the middle of the town of Alta and three huge towers to carry the carriages up and down the canyon. The towers are 10, 15 and 20 stories high. The tallest would nearly reach the top of the our state capitol and would be topped with flashing flights per FAA requirements.

Why would anyone build such a thing? The goal is to get people up to two ski areas faster in winter. It won’t make the limited capacity of the canyon any larger, it will just fill it up more quickly. Imagine a water glass — turning the tap on more doesn’t make the glass bigger, it only makes it overflow sooner. And that’s what the gondola would do.

And this is a very expensive undertaking. UDOT’s current estimate is $550 million. But we know from history that large construction projects are subject to significant escalation once all the details and problems are more fully understood. If this were built, the final cost is likely to approach one billion dollars.

Who would pay for this undertaking and who would be served by it? This is not like a new highway where many would find it helps their daily travel; this is for a very select few who can afford lift served skiing. About 7% of the citizens of Utah ski, but not all of those in Little Cottonwood Canyon. In fact, only a few percent of our population would ever ride this gondola.

But all us would pay for it. The general idea is that this would be a government-financed undertaking, i.e., the taxpayer foots the bill. On average, that amounts to over $200 per Utah citizen, most of whom will derive no benefit whatsoever from this structure — it only provides winter transportation to skiers at two resorts.

Those skiers enjoy a median family income that is two or three times that of our average citizens. Moving money from lower income people to higher income people is not the sort of practice that many of us want to encourage. It is Robin Hood in reverse.

Finally, this region, indeed the planet we live on, is undergoing significant changes in our environment triggered by greenhouse gases we have been pouring into the atmosphere for the last 150 years. We haven’t yet realized the consequences of those changes, but we do know that the future will not be like the past. And that goes for skiing, too. Clearly this is not the time to invest in inflexible, expensive, fixed infrastructure that could prove to be out of place or useless in a decade or two.

There is definitely a traffic problem in Little Cottonwood Canyon and surrounding communities But a huge, unsightly, narrowly purposed gondola is not the solution. The times call for flexible, common sense and lower cost approaches such as better transit leading with electric busses which have been proven to work well in the canyon.

Alta Ski Lifts and the town of Alta teamed up last winter to implement a parking reservation system that significantly reduced congestion and worked to the benefit of nearly everyone and the ski area had its biggest season since its inception.

Actions like this, that can be tried and changed as necessary, are the way to go. These are the solutions for the future.

Roger Bourke

Roger Bourke is the mayor of Alta.